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Book Review: The Instructions by Adam Levin

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I guess the first thing to be considered, for many perhaps the only thing to be considered with regard to Adam Levin’s massive novel The Instructions is length. Although not quite matching James Joyce who needed 760 odd pages to chronicle the events of one day in Dublin, since his 1,000 plus tome covers four days in Chicago and environs, Levin has produced one hell of a long book. Of course, you could argue that since Joyce deals with two characters, not counting Molly, and Levin deals with only one, it is necessary to divide the pages in Ulysses by two and those of The Instructions by four in order to get a more accurate comparison. Then, of course, why not count Molly? In which case, the numbers are closer. Then again it may well be necessary, for accuracy’s sake, to think about words on the page. After all Ulysses in the Modern Library edition hasn’t quite the page size of the Canongate edition of The Instructions. It doesn’t come close in bulk either: simply holding Levin’s book to turn the pages is something of a chore. Suffice it to say this is one long book.

(To digress for a moment: if the kind of Talmudic analysis merely hinted at in this opening paragraph is not your cup of tea, if you think of it as nit-picking, you probably aren’t going to care much for The Instructions. A good many of the 1,000 plus pages are taken up with precisely this kind of analysis of what characters say, what they write, what they do. Hardly anything — whether a wink, a nod, or a casual remark — goes unanalyzed. End of digression.)

Length doesn’t particularly bother me. When I finish one book, I start another. It really makes no difference how long a book is. Still, if you are going to spend the time on a book of this length, might you not be better off with War and Peace or Don Quixote? Back many years ago, a professor of mine once suggested a standard by which to test a work of literature. Ask yourself, he said, does the value you get from it justify the work you have to put into it. He wasn’t necessarily talking about length only, he was talking about all the effort necessary to read a work and understand it. While this is a fine standard to measure a work’s value, it is necessary to read the book and do all the work before making your judgment. If that judgment is that it wasn’t worth the effort, you’ve in effect wasted all that time that might have been put to better use. On the other hand, as a critic, if I have done all that work and discovered that it was worth the effort for me, how can I know that all readers will end up with similar results?

(Digression: Talmudic analysis seems to be catchy.)

Now that you know that this is a long book and that length isn’t necessarily a drawback as far as I am concerned, let me tell you a little bit about what is a book, for better or worse, like few others you may have come across. The Instructions is the story a charismatic 10-year old Talmudic scholar, Gurion Maccabee, who has managed to get himself expelled from a number of Jewish schools for fighting and encouraging others to engage in violence. Moreover, he suspects he may be the messiah, and through his magnetic personality, his brilliant reasoning, and his physical abilities he has been able to get others to believe in him as well. As the novel begins, he has been placed in a special program for students with behavioral disorders in a public junior high school. The other students in the program are all older than him, but here, too, he manages to become their leader in a fight against what they feel are the unfair regulations imposed on them by unreasonable authorities.

This struggle becomes entwined with the need for Jews to defend themselves from anti-Semitism and fight for righteousness. Gurion distinguishes between Jews and Israelites. Jews are those who accept their situation, and either through fear or complacency, refuse to fight for righteousness. Israelites are those who commit to the struggle. Indeed, it seems that you don’t even have to be Jewish to be an Israelite. The novel goes on to describe the “Gurionic War,” the revolution of the Israelites against the perversions of justice, perhaps fulfilling the prophecy, “and a little child shall lead them.”

The novel itself is presented as scripture in the voice of the ten year old Gurion, and herein lies a problem. Rarely, if ever, does he sound like a ten year old. Whether he is speaking to a teacher or one of his fellow students, he always speaks with a maturity beyond his years, even if his ideas aren’t always as mature as his voice. The book even calls this to the reader’s attention by including a faux letter from Philip Roth, one of Gurion’s favorite writers, saying that he doesn’t care for what he thinks is the elder Gurion putting his ideas in the mouth of the young boy. The trouble is the faux Roth is wrong. This is indeed the boy speaking, and the reader needs to accept his wisdom beyond his years. In a sense, it is this incongruency that underlies what some have seen as the comic element of the novel.

In the end there is much that is entertaining in this novel, and there is much that is annoying. There are laugh out loud moments, clever word play, and brain teasing logical labyrinths. Then there are the times when enough is enough, when another page and a half analysis of the meaning of a touch on the arm or a ten page justification of the failure of one friend to help another is simply redundant. There will be those who find the entertaining parts worth putting up with the rest, but I suspect they will be a limited group of readers with a specialized tastes. Think of all those readers who never managed to finish Infinite Jest.

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